The Summit League Football House of Cards
|Summit League football has some huge obstacles:
the Big Sky, the Missouri Valley Football Conference,
and it’s own members.
When the Summit League expanded into the Dakotas, some seeds of thought were planted about sponsoring football. You had Western Illinois as a conference member who had football in the MVFC. You had NDSU & SDSU then join the MVFC for football and in the Summit for all other sports. And you have Southern Utah and South Dakota in the Summit with their football programs in the Great West. North Dakota is expected to also join the Summit with the other 3 Dakota schools.
Do the math: that’s (6) football schools in the Summit League. And six schools is all the conference would need to have an automatic playoff berth.
So why hasn’t it happened, you ask?
Because the entire premise of the Summit League sponsoring football is built on a house of cards.
The notion of Summit League football faces an attack on the western front from the Big Sky Conference, to the east from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and even internally from it’s own membership.
The Big Sky:
The five Summit League members who sponsor football, along with potential newcomer North Dakota would make a solid group of six schools to create a new football conference. And the Big Sky was sitting comfortably with it’s membership with no plans to expand.
But while the Summit League football schools discuss any potential birth of Summit League football, it always comes back to one point: to create Summit League football, it would need each and every of the six members to join…AND STAY.
It is no secret that Southern Utah would like to join the Big Sky. The conference already has their instate FCS rival, Weber St., located in northern Utah. Just five hours south of the Southern Utah campus is another Big Sky member, Northern Arizona. So in many ways, the Big Sky is the ideal home for Southern Utah. And SUU has made it no secret they’d like to be in the Big Sky.
In addition to SUU, both North Dakota and South Dakota, which do not have a football conference home with an FCS playoff automatic bid, would join the Big Sky in a heartbeat. Even NDSU and SDSU, which have a football home, would likely consider the Big Sky for full membership if asked.
So the house of cards of what would be Summit League football has it’s biggest issue: what happens if they form a conference with six willing members, only to have Southern Utah leave? The result: a dead football conference.
The Summit just lost some more leverage this past week to the Big Sky.
The Summit League could have been formed with the 6 all-sports members and absorbed the remaining Great West football members to join as the 7th and 8th affiliate members. But the Big Sky put a stop to that by inviting Cal Poly and UC Davis to join it’s conference instead as football members.
And if you’re keeping score of the Big Sky membership and the WAC developments, a loss of Montana to the WAC would open up a spot for Southern Utah to join the Big Sky.
Even more worth noting is the somewhat revolutionary philosophy change by the Big Sky, to permit affiliate football members.
For years, Sacramento St. has had to house all of their sports in the Big Sky as it was a requirement by the conference to be a football member. So Sacramento St. has sent their teams north into Eastern Washington, northeast to Idaho St., Montana, and Montana St., and east & south to Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. Meanwhile, Cal Poly and UC Davis now get to play in the same football conference as nearby rival Sacramento St., but get to save millions in travel costs for their other sports by participating in the California based Big West conference. Don’t be surprised in the coming weeks if you hear rumors of Sacramento St. leaving the Big Sky for the Big West for it’s non-football sports.
It has been reported that as part of the recent partnership of Big West schools UC Davis & Cal Poly with the Big Sky, that the Big West has given assurances that they will not “poach” any Big Sky schools such as Sacramento St. However, if Sacramento St. wanted to leave the Big Sky, and the Big West had a spot for them, it hardly seems like a legal precedent where Sacramento St. would not be permitted to leave the Big Sky.
And if Sacramento St. leaves for the Big West, it would open up a position for Southern Utah to join as an all-sports member. Yet another scenario that would ruin Summit League Football.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference:
Just like the Big Sky, the MVFC has leverage over the Summit League. NDSU, SDSU and WIU are members of the Missouri Valley for football and in the Summit for all other sports. The MVFC is one of the top conferences in FCS football, and it’s membership is comprised of schools all closer to those schools than even their Summit League brethren. So if you’re NDSU, SDSU or WIU, it would take some seriously ironclad contracts to convince you to leave a top football conference for a start-up that has only six total members. Southern Utah remains the top candidate to leave the Summit for all-sports, so they are the top flight risk.
But if you’re the MVFC and you want to secure your conference, you can make your own proactive moves. If you feel NDSU and SDSU add enough to your entire conference, you could always invite both schools to join the Missouri Valley as all-sports members. The MVC is a significant upgrade over the Summit and both schools would be thrilled to join.
As the MVC is a blend of larger public state schools with football, and a few private schools for basketball, there has long been talk of the conference expanding with schools like St. Louis and Butler. The problem with those candidates being that St. Louis is already in a higher ranked basketball conference, the A10, and has it’s eyes set on joining with the Big East non-football members if a split ever happened in that hybrid conference of large state football schools and smaller catholic basketball schools. Butler is a more likely candidate to accept a MVC invitation. But with their recent success, they might have higher aspirations.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking to expand, NDSU and SDSU would be fine options. And if the MVC offered them full membership, you can say goodbye to Summit League football.
No Commitment = No Dice
Regardless of what the Big Sky does, or even the Missouri Valley Conference potential moves, the biggest reason as to why the Summit League will not likely ever have football is because of the conflicting goals of the current members.
The Summit has improved greatly over the past decade. What was once just a collection of Division 1 schools that needed a conference to call home, a D1 “halfway house”, has grown into a well managed group in a tighter knit regional footprint. The Great West and Atlantic Sun have taken over the distinction of being the being the training wheels for recent Division 1 upgrades. Former Summit
League and Louisiana based member Centenary has left the conference to downgrade to Division 3, which removes the furthest south and east travel destination, so the footprint continues to close in. The Summit now has distinguished themselves with some stability and are actually a desirable home now to many of the Great West members.
But for all the positive moves the Summit has made, the business of college sports conferences is still that…a business.
Utah was happy in the Mountain West but always had it’s eyes on the Pac-10. So while the Summit League members will continue to make the conference even better on the court and the fields, it’s members will always keep one eye on the other conference options.
For NDSU, SDSU, South Dakota and eventually North Dakota, the Missouri Valley is the prettiest girl that all four schools hope bats it’s doe eyes. For Southern Utah, they don’t even bother dreaming of the Pac-10 beauty like Utah and BYU did, and they don’t even think they have a shot at the always attractive Mountain West. And even the WAC, the troubled girl with the nice beach house, is a stretch in their mind. But the Big Sky is the girl next door that Southern Utah has always fancied. And after years of being cordial and taking her rejections, the Big Sky might finally be ready to ask Southern Utah to the Sadie Hawkins Dance that is a stable FCS conference in the same regional footprint as the conference.
So while football might never come to be in the Summit League, the potential changes might actually favor the overall conference. If all that happens to the Summit is that Southern Utah leaves for the Big Sky, it will even further tighten the conference footprint.
There has been some talk of the Southland considering Oral Roberts in Oklahoma as a potential replacement for UTSA or Texas St. when they leave for an FBS conference.
If both schools left, and North Dakota is brought in, you’d still have an 8 school conference. There wouldn’t be any real need to worry unless the Missouri Valley invited some schools. But that would still be a long shot.
So while football might not happen in the Summit, the future remains bright for the little conference that could. But like most conferences at this level of the pecking order, each of the schools will always be preparing themselves for greener pastures. College sports is a business and the schools are doing the responsible thing by keeping their options open. We like to think that college sports are part of some Utopian society and that perhaps the six Summit League schools could take a blood oath to stay together forever, maybe even exchanging some friendship bracelets and preparing for centuries together. But the Summit League is still a group of schools tied together only by necessity. And needs change as do opportunities.